One piece of advice if you’re thinking about driving in Brazil: don’t. According to recent statistics, Brazil holds the dubious honor of having the third highest number of traffic deaths per 100,000 people of any country in the world, only surpassed by the Dominican Republic and El Salvador. At the opposite end of the spectrum, The United Kingdom (ranked at the 196th position) has 5.6 traffic deaths per 100,000 people per year and Singapore has 5.2.
While Brazilians are known the world over as some of the kindest, sweetest, most gentle people on the face of the planet, this is not necessarily the case when you encounter them behind the wheel of a car, motorcycle, truck or any other form of motor vehicle. Imagine highways filled with crazed taxi drivers and you’ll begin to get the picture. According to one Brazilian wag, concepts such as stop signs, lanes, speed limits, double yellow lines, no passing zones or any other road sign that may be encountered are merely “suggestions” to the average Brazilian motorist. But this is on the highway where things are relatively calm and orderly. It’s even worse on the streets of most larger cities—especially Salvador, Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo. There, imagine streets full of drivers racing in a Grand Prix. Individual lanes are all but meaningless. Motorists will turn left from the right lane and right from the left lane. They regularly run red lights, weave in and out of traffic without rhyme or reason, rarely use turn signals, drive too fast and insanely, and will all but murder you to ensure that they are the first in line at a stop light—when they actually do stop for one.
If you decide to rent a car and drive in Brazil, good luck! There are numerous car rental agencies with booths at the airport or your travel agent can arrange a reservation for you. You will need your driver’s license but you may also need an International Driving Permit / License obtainable from your local AAA office in the USA.
The vast majority of rental cars in Brazil most often are equipped with a five speed, manual transmission. Some rental agencies may have some cars with automatic transmissions but don’t count on it.
If you rent a car, be sure to sign up for the full, ‘return only the smoking key’ type of insurance. Being at fault in an accident and not having sufficient insurance (or none at all) backing you up is a situation you don’t want to get into.
Keep in mind that gasoline is expensive in Brazil. As of 2010, a liter of gasoline costs about R$ 2.60+ per liter (depending upon the city and/or area) or the equivalent of about USD$ 4.50+ per gallon. Many Brazilian manufactured cars are designed to run on alcohol [ethanol] (made domestically from sugarcane) or have “flex” engines, which can operate on either gasoline or alcohol [ethanol]. Alcohol [ethanol] costs less than gasoline (sometimes and in some areas it’s half) and provides more horsepower but also less mileage per liter. Most all Brazilian postos (gas stations) offer both gasoline and alcohol [ethanol] in addition to diesel.
Numerous highways in many parts of the country are toll roads. On these, be prepared to stop every 30 minutes or so to pay the variable pedágio (toll) for that section of highway—anywhere from R$ 8 to R$ 15+.
Most highways have numerous postos (gas stations) at various intervals and most have a restaurant attached. The Graal and Frago Assado chains of restaurants are among the best and cleanest in all of Brazil. Postos (gas stations) are good places to gas up, take a break and have a snack.
As you drive the streets, roads, highways and byways of Brazil, also be prepared to be stopped by the Federal Highway Police or Military Police in an impromptu blitz—essentially a roadblock where every passing vehicle is stopped for a check of the driver’s identity and the car’s registration papers.
Also be on the lookout for speed bumps on many roads and highways that pass through or near a any city or town as well as on many city streets. They’re called different things in different parts of Brazil—redutor de velocidade (speed reducer) or quebra-molas (break springs)—but they’re all there to slow traffic down. Some of these bumps are relatively small but others are quite substantial and will most assuredly wake you up and possibly damage your car if you hit them at full speed.